Meet the Westone ES80
Designs that use flakes can be a gamble because much depends on how the flakes are applied to the shell. Personally, I am not a flake fan on pure acrylic polished shells. Something about the two materials never really gels that well for me. However, the ES80 cold pouring and Flex material build are entirely different and the flakes application and blending with the shell really look fantastic in real life.
As you run your hand over the shell you will not feel a typical acrylic texture, especially around the tip. It is sort of a rougher texture in part with a misty hue so it is not quite transparent. It also feels a touch softer than pure acrylic finishes, perhaps some silicone in there at a guess.
The visual is thus slightly ‘aged’ looking rather than a pristine shine. The copper flakes simply add to the ES80’s aged look and feel. The flaking does not extend all the way down to the tip of the bore for obvious health reasons. In terms of preference, I think the two-tone collage looks quite fetching. By the way, it is worth mentioning you can have the same effect with gold or silver flakes but my preference is on the richer color of copper.
Horn Design Bore
The ES80 is a multi-bore approach. However, the bores are terminated much deeper into the chamber and not right at the tip of the nozzle. This termination point is where the “horn design” essentially starts.
Now what the large open bore does within the ES80 is to allow Westone to fine-tune and develop the readily mixed sound before it leaves the chamber and into the bore. In doing so, they are able to tweak the ES80’s high-frequency extension a little further than what is possible with a traditional individual tubed bore design using the same drivers. I suspect this is one major advantage the ES80 has over the universal sibling, the W80.
Cables & Connectors
This is the first CIEM I have used with an MMCX connection so it is interesting to see how they worked into the overall design. Instead of a flat socket, you typically find in the likes of Campfire Audio Westone have opted for a circular “cup” design with a slight bulge in the shell in the surrounding area to accommodate it. It will accept all MMCX connections so it is not proprietary.
I received two EPIC G2 stock cables with the ES80. Both use the same wire and jacket. The only difference between the pair is that one of them has an inline remote mic and playback module for call handling and playback controls.
The stock wire is a 4-core OFC copper in a twisted black PET jacket 1.3m in length with heat shrink retentive memory hooks. It is terminated with a right angle 3.5mm gold-plated stereo jack on one end and regular MMCX terminations on the other. There is no left or right indicated, just one dot for left and two for the right which I do not find terribly intuitive. The Y-split has a thin stiffened black plastic barrel with detachable chin cinch.
Both cables are pliant in terms of handling and generate no physical noise on the wire or microphonics. On a physical level, you may prefer this to the ALO Cable as it is quieter and easier to manage but it won’t sound as good. I do tend to find these types of cables to be fairly mundane in terms of dynamic range performance, sounding more laid back and slightly to the warm side.
ALO Audio Reference 8
The Reference 8 from ALO Audio is an altogether different and higher quality proposition to the EPIC stock cables. The cost alone is worth considering at $299 on ALO Audio’s website. This is no audio cookie cutter wiring.
The Reference 8 is an 8-wire design 4-conductor SPC design encased in a braided translucent FEP jacket using heat shrunk memory tubing. It is terminated with a higher quality right-angled 3.5mm gold-plated jack on one end and MMCX on the other. The MMCX connectors are color-coded blue and red for left and right. The Y-split is a flattish black metal tube with detachable chin cinch.
Visually, it is a nice looking cable but physically a little on the stiff side. It also suffers from a little more microphonics and memory retention than the stock EPIC cable. I would love this to come in a PVC rather than FEP jacket for better handling.
Sonically it is a big step-up over the EPIC cable and to be honest, if you are not going after any other aftermarket cable you should be using the ES80 with the Reference 8. You get far more dynamic range, a better level of detail as well as more articulate and lively upper mids and treble presentation.
Comfort & Seal
I have to give props to Westone for the comfort levels of the ES80. Most, if not all CIEMs I have excellent sealing properties but comfort always comes down to the quality of the ear impressions submitted and the final form factor. Regular acrylic for me has a little more pressure than silicone due to the stiffness of the material. It needs to be super exact to get a very comfortable fit. Silicone tends to be very comfortable but the seal is not as assured and people may find it feels weird in the ear.
My own examples include 64 Audio’s process which has been super accurate due to their 3D printing process combined with an excellent set of impressions. A slightly off comfort and fit was the JH Audio Layla Signature series back in May with its very high pressure larger layered wood fit.
The ES80 sits somewhere in-between 64 Audio and JH Audio. Due to the wider single bore, it will not go as deep as the 64 Audio A18/A12 or the M-Fidelity SA-43 acrylic tube bore designs. I would classify the ES80 to be slightly relaxed in its fitting. The feel is more on par with Rhines and VE Ears designs.
However, the comfort is just excellent and possibly the most comfortable CIEMs I have used yet. The materials used here, especially the Flex canal material really do a fantastic job of applying just the right amount of pressure for a great seal combined with enough stiffness to ensure it stays in place.
I am going to presume the high-energy work out of stage musicians generate a lot of heat that quickly expand the flex material properties to close up and seal very quickly. Hence, this being marketed in part as an ideal stage monitor despite its lack of comparative nozzle depth.
The ES80 is almost reference-like in both tone and instrumental positioning. You have to be careful with the term ‘reference’ not to mix that up with perceptions of a stubbornly neutral sound because the ES80 does have a very good level of transparency. Sources and cables definitely will alter your perception of the ES80 toning from clear and clean to slightly warmer and thicker. That for me is a good level of referencing capability.
With the stock EPIC cable, you will only get a glimpse of the ES80 capability. More accurately, you get a window on the performance of the cable which is lacking in punch, adding some additional warmth and attenuating on both ends of the frequency spectrum. You lose a little detail and it becomes a little more mids focused. Instrumental timbre is a fairly natural-sounding though so it is not an offensive sound but one you can clearly improve on.
The ALO Reference 8 cable is going to bring a lot more character and a more pleasing harmonic balance into the ES80 tuning. The SPC mix of wire with the ES80 delivers a typically punchier low-end with more treble sparkle yet it retains that natural-sounding instrumental timbre. You also hear a lot more detail and experience a much-improved level of dynamic range with the supplied Reference 8 cable.
Overall, the one takeaway from all this is the excellent level of coherency and accuracy that Westone has managed to extract from the ES80. I do consider this to be a substantial upgrade on the W80 sound signature with perhaps only a mild mid-bass and vocal/midrange bump that injects some welcome body and excellent clarity.
This is a fairly rounded soundstage with decent depth and height and superior width. Depth on the ES80 can vary from reasonably flat to quite deep depending on your source and cabling. I found that good 8-wire cable/balanced setups tended to accentuate the ES80 dynamic range greatly which led to a much more pronounced low-end presence and stage depth.
For example, upgrading to the Effect Audio Janus Dynamic cable and going balanced on the iBasso DX150 produced a much more spacious sounding low-end and a touch more sub-bass presence than the ALO Audio Ref 8/SE approach.
Instrumental positioning is fairly neutral rather extremely forward or recessed and delivers what I would crudely describe as a dance hall type experience rather than an intimate moshpit or arena like distance. The imaging and instrumental separation on the ES80 is excellent. The better the source and cable the more holographic sounding the Es80 will become. Nothing too extreme though. Instead, it sounds very life-like and accurate and in particular, left/right image panning, which is very quick and easy to pick up on the ES80.
Bass response in the ES80 is reasonably linear and very coherent sounding. There is a very slight mid-bass hump (around 80-120Hz) for warmth but nothing overly accentuated but it does inject a little wetness into the low-end. Bass layering rendering on the ES80 is fabulous and very balanced, to be honest. There is no overall bias to the boom and thud or the warm or clear side.
There is also much less sub-bass roll-off than from what I can remember on the W80. As a result, the ES80 low-end has an excellent if not in your face extension and presence but always very well defined, tight sounding, and pacey.
There is a tiny dip from the mid-bass to lower mids for instrumental clarity but nothing that robs it of body or texture. Nor does it push back instrumental staging presence in any noticeable fashion. In fact, bass to lower-mids transition sounds very even and coherent to my ears.
The instrumental harmonic balance is excellent. Westone’s heightened upper mids and lower treble tuning contrast really nicely with the wetter low-end performance. Guitar work has excellent presence and body whilst at the same time sounding clear and articulate.
Vocal presence is very good also, especially around the 1-2k range where I can still detect a slight forward emphasis. It is not overly pushed sounding or in your face and in keeping with the ES80’s generally reference-like tonality.
Pleasingly, the ES80 does not suffer from artificial vocal sibilance either. Westone has tuned the lower treble tastefully to keep the upper harmonic order from creating any sharp sounding partial overtones on either instrument or vocal.
In some ways, it reminds me of the old ATH-AD2000 midrange excellence though truth be told my aural memory of that experience is getting a bit old. Still, it is the one headphone that leaped out to me as having that same excellent mids experience.
I love the treble on the ES80, to be honest. It sounds so incredibly balanced, sounding neither too sharp nor too laid back and lacking in air. There is also a little upper mids and lower treble lift for some important low-end contrast and upper order harmonic balance.
There is also some sort of nudge around 8-10k to a little sparkle but this is not the main focus. What it does do is give it some welcome air and extension but nothing bright or lean sounding. Thus, you will not hear anything particularly brash about the ES80 top-end but it will sound more open and articulate than the W80 for my money.
The lower treble push will give percussion timbre some welcome presence and clarity but again it is not over the top so you would have to try really hard with your setup or cables to get anything splashy sounding.
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